Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Truth Aquatics — owner of the Conception dive boat that caught fire and killed 34 people off the Channel Islands over Labor Day weekend in 2019 — has sold the remaining two boats in its fleet, according to the Los Angeles Times. News of the sale coincided with numerous wrongful-death lawsuits filed by several of the victims’ families against the company and its owners. 

Only three days after the Conception disaster, Truth Aquatics and Glen and Dana Fritzler filed for economic protection under an arcane law dating to 1851, the Limitation of Liability Act, or LOLA. This shields them financially from lawsuits brought by the victims’ families, at least in theory. 

“LOLA is to federal maritime law what the Second Amendment is to gun control,” said John Hillsman, a maritime legal specialist who is representing surviving family members of six who died aboard the Conception. He called LOLA “one of the most disfavored and reviled laws on the books.”

Hillsman described how all the survivors of the victims in the boating disaster came together and offered the Fritzlers a stipulation to protect the shipowners’ rights under LOLA. That agreement allowed the families to file civil lawsuits for wrongful death in the state Superior Court in Los Angeles County, he said. After those cases are decided, most likely by a jury, the federal LOLA case will resume before a judge.

A success in federal court would limit the Fritzlers’ liability to the value of the wreck, which is essentially zero as the Conception burned to the waterline before sinking offshore Santa Cruz Island on September 2, 2019. More defendants have been brought into Hillsman’s civil matter, however, including Sea Landing Dive Center, boat-builder Seaway Boat Company of Long Beach, two individual boat designers, and Ventura Harbor Boatyard.

The two other boats owned by Truth Aquatics — Vision and Truth — were sold in November to Channel Islands Expeditions, which is operating out of Sea Landing. CEO Garrett Kababik declined to comment on the purchase, but he’s run a kayak rental company out of Santa Barbara Harbor for years and operates another dive boat, the Sunfish, out of Oxnard. The company’s website states it recently added aboard its vessels an escape hatch out to the weather deck, a centralized fire detection system, and a fireproof equipment charging cabinet — the lack of which were implicated in the Conception fire by the National Transportation Safety Board. As noted in the L.A. Times on Thursday, the company also has a Safety Management System, also cited by the NTSB as lacking at Truth Aquatics. The Fritzlers’ spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment, and their civil attorney would not comment on active litigation.

The Limitation of Liability case raises the issue of insurance, which an attorney for two plaintiffs told the Times was held by Truth Aquatics at the minimum required by law. Hillsman agreed the Fritzlers didn’t have the wherewithal or insurance to satisfy any judgments, even with the sale of the boats. The Conception was valued at $1 million by Seaway in a 2005 story posted at its website in which a man stole the boat and beached it at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

“The small passenger vessel industry has until now been woefully underregulated,” Hillsman observed. A Boeing 737 carries about as many passengers as the Conception could accommodate on a day trip — about 100 — “but airlines carry hundreds of millions in insurance funds because they’re prepared for a disaster like this.” Hillsman believed that if small ships carried as much as $20 million in insurance, the insurer would audit them for things like a roving watch; the NTSB’s final report noted such a watch would have prevented the fire. “With the level they’re insured at now, nobody cared, and that’s a real problem,” said Hillsman.


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